For teams that are outside of the top 12, time is running out to force their way into the Chase. In order to get into the Championship chase, one of those contenders has to make some kind of a big splash.
Kyle Busch chose Saturday night to make his splash.
Kyle Busch ran up in the top 10 for much of the event Saturday night, but never really challenged for the lead. That is, until his team gave him two tires on pit road under the seventh caution (which was out for rain). Busch won the race out of the pits, and lined up fourth on the restart behind Michael Waltrip (who did not pit) with four fresh tires. On the restart, Kyle followed Waltrip to get past Mark Martin and Ryan Newman on the inside, and then blasted by Waltrip a lap later to take the lead.
Once Busch was out front, he pulled away at first. However, four yellows pulled him back in. After the last restart on lap 497, Martin hounded Busch for the last four laps, nearly getting all the way alongside at the white flag. Kyle was able to hold off this final assault to claim victory at Bristol by just a car length over Martin.
This was Kyle’s fourth victory of the year, tying him with Martin for the most in the Cup Series this season.
After the race, Kyle was very happy with his result.
“The whole M&M’s team did a phenomenal job this weekend,” Kyle said in the post-race press conference. “We just kept plugging away at it, making some adjustments, trying to make the car faster, make it better in the short run, better in the long run, where it was capable enough of keeping up with the No. 5 in general.”
The only thing that might come as a surprise to many fans was the deference that Kyle had towards Martin after the race, claiming in victory lane that he wished Mark was there instead of him since he felt that Martin deserved the win.
Mark Martin, who led the most laps (240) on Saturday night, was not bitter that he was denied the victory on Saturday night. He was happy to get a good run.
“I’m so grateful to have a chance to do what I did tonight, which is drive a really fast racecar and finish where it was running,” Martin said after the race. “We’ve had so much trouble this year, not finishing like we ran.”
Behind Kyle Busch and Martin was Marcos Ambrose in third (a career-best oval finish), followed by Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin, who started 41st. Newman brought his No. 39 home in sixth, followed by Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson in eighth. Johnson clinched his spot in the Chase Saturday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
Points Standings (Top 12)
Points leader Tony Stewart had a terrible weekend at Bristol. First, a bad qualifying effort put the Office Depot No. 14 way back in the 30th starting spot. Then, radio issues hampered the run almost from the start. Stewart pitted to install a new radio under the first caution, and lost a lap. Handling issues never really allowed Stewart to get involved in the action. A stall under caution cost him even more laps. Eventually, Stewart brought the No. 14 home in 33rd, 11 laps down, his worst finish of the season, so far. This allowed the Hendrick duo of Gordon and Johnson to gain ground. Despite a late issue on pit road that dropped Jimmie out of the lead, he rebounded to bring the Lowe’s No. 48 home in eighth. This moved Johnson back into second in points, 220 behind Stewart. Jeff Gordon, who was second coming into the race, ran fairly well until contact with Hamlin caused a fender rub. This dropped Gordon off the lead lap all the way back to a 23rd-place finish. Hamlin had a great run on Saturday night, after spinning out in qualifying and having to start 41st. Once the green flag fell, Hamlin started a slow progression towards the front, getting all the way to fifth by the end of the race. This boosted him up one spot from fifth.
Carl Edwards also had a bad qualifying run, and as a result, lined up 32nd. Unfortunately, his car also had handling issues. As a result, Edwards couldn’t make all that much progress up through the field and was lapped at one point. Getting the free pass during the eighth caution allowed Carl to move up the order, and the wrecks helped to thin out the field. At the end of the race, Carl was 16th; just about the highest he’d been all night. Kurt Busch is still sixth after a quiet, yet solid run to a seventh-place finish. Just the type of run necessary to solidify a Chase spot. Newman is up two spots this week to seventh after a great run to sixth. It’s a great jump back after a tough couple of weeks for the No. 39 team. Biffle is also up two spots to eighth after a fourth-place finish Saturday night.
Juan Pablo Montoya is down two places to ninth after a 25th-place finish Saturday night. Montoya got a flat tire late in the race while running in the top five, which forced him to pit under green to change right-side tires. The two laps were lost in the pits. Martin is up two places to 10th after finishing second and leading the most laps on Saturday night. Kasey Kahne was the big loser, dropping three places to 11th after a tough 28th-place finish, three laps down. Kenseth rounds out the top 12. Kyle Busch, after his victory, is now 13th in points, 34 behind Kenseth.
Around the 35th-Place Cutoff
After Saturday night, the margin has closed up between the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 and the Red Bull No. 82. Scott Speed, driving the No. 82 qualified a very strong third. However, he quickly slipped back into the 20s, getting lapped at one point. Thanks to the attrition, Speed was able to get the free pass during the ninth caution and began to move up some more. By the time the race ended, Speed had a fairly good 15th-place finish.
For John Andretti in the Taco Bell No. 34, it was a completely different race. Andretti qualified in the back and rode around for much of the race, trying to stay out of trouble. However, trouble found the No. 34. Just after halfway, Andretti went into the wall in turn 1, shedding parts in the process. The team spent a few laps on pit road fixing the car, then sent Andretti back on the track. Andretti rode around for the rest of the night, eventually bringing the car home in 30th, six laps down. This closes the margin between Andretti and Speed to 122 points.
For much of the night, the No. 71 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet driven by David Gilliland was having the best run of the teams around the cutoff, actually running as high as eighth early on. Gilliland slowly began to drop back in the field, eventually falling back as far as 24th before beginning to climb back up the order. Gilliland was still on the lead lap in 20th on lap 356 when he hit the wall in turn 3, ending his day. Gilliland was classified 39th at the finish.